Bud Withers' Blog

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A tale of two Marks and the Kentucky job

  About 2001 or 2002, I found myself in Mark Few’s office, having a conversation I never had with any other coach.
  The chief of the Gonzaga basketball program was a couple of years into a tenure as the head guy, and seemed to be wrestling with the notion of the advisability of future job opportunities. He asked me for my thoughts in moving from Eugene – 10 minutes from where he grew up – to Seattle.
  Nothing very profound could I offer, either in the way of advice or insight. In fact, given that Few has staked his entire career at Gonzaga, it’s entirely reasonable to conclude this was only another case of my input ending up on a large trash heap of irrelevance.
  In any case, the conversation came to mind a week ago when Kentucky began its search to replace John Calipari. A respected national media member advanced Few’s name into the discussion, saying he was one figure whose name hadn’t come up, but needed to.
  Briefly, I wondered: Would this be, could this be, the crowning non sequitur for Few – deciding that in the twilight of his career, he had taken Gonzaga as far as he could take it and he was ready to bring all of Kentucky’s resources to bear in one final quest for a national championship? Even after a tenure in which he’s turned down Oregon, UCLA, Stanford, Indiana, Washington, Cal, Florida and God knows how many other openings?
  Nah, no chance. Who knows whether a shot-in-the-dark, flyer of a phone call was made to Few’s agent, but it’s pretty obvious Few intends to retire at Gonzaga. It’s sometimes said that everybody has a price, but Few has made a career of disproving it. Fifty-nine percent of his life – his life, not his career – has been spent at Gonzaga.
  And in that vein, I wonder if Few’s longevity at GU has been instructive for some other coaches along the way – the idea that just maybe, rushing to board the upward-mobility ladder is perhaps not always the best choice.
  The vision of Few at Kentucky was summarily obliterated by paging through the comments of the Wildcat faithful accompanying stories that UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart had hired Mark Pope of Brigham Young to replace Calipari. Most of those reacted by advocating Barnhart be stuffed into a broom closet at Rupp Arena, the door locked behind him.
  Which is precisely why Few wouldn’t bite on Kentucky. The idea of fans driving by his house and asking him to pose for photographs isn’t on his wish list. As longtime college-basketball writer/author Dick Weiss tweeted over the weekend, “Kentucky has the most passionate fan base in college basketball, and it’s not even close.”
  Dan Hurley of Connecticut, the hot thing going, said no to Kentucky. So did Scott Drew of Baylor. It’s unclear whether Kentucky approached Billy Donovan of the Chicago Bulls, but at the very least, this makes Pope no higher than No. 3 on the Wildcats’ list, and that was what seemed to throw many of their fans into a drop-forged rage – the idea that the search itself, not the fruits of it, had put them in their place.
  The Pope hire took me back to the ‘90s, when I covered Washington basketball. A 6-10 forward, Pope was the prize recruit of Lynn Nance’s UW regime, a product of nearby Newport High School. It struck me that Pope had almost a slavish relationship to Nance – totally bought in, eager to do whatever Nance demanded, at a time when the head coach wasn’t a very captivating figure in Seattle.
  Of course, when Nance was fired after the 1993 season, Pope transferred to Kentucky, and there might have been a seed planted to put that into motion. Nance had worked under Joe B. Hall at Kentucky from 1974-76, and he told me once he’d been named a “Kentucky Colonel” under that regime. That’s a service honor bestowed by the governor of Kentucky, and as I recall, Nance displayed that framed certificate on his office wall.
  Pope made the transfer, UK coach Rick Pitino immediately raved about his dedication and work ethic, and he was part of a vaunted Wildcat team that won the 1996 national championship.
  That’s one reason I think this might be an underrated hire. Pope won’t be dumbstruck by the fan frenzy around him; he lived it for three years. Beyond that, he’s a high-motor guy, a bit of a character on the sideline who had Utah Valley and then BYU on an upward arc.
  Meanwhile in Spokane, Mark Few will be content to see it play out, earning less and very likely, enjoying it more.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsguru #zagup


Zags exemplary; some GU fans, not so much

  I’m sitting in front of a computer and trying to describe adequately Gonzaga’s nine-year streak of making the NCAA Sweet 16. A marriage of “stupefying” and “insane” is about the best I can do.
   So irrepressible were the Zags in taking out McNeese State and Kansas over the opening weekend, that the inclination was to wonder what the hell was wrong with those other two teams. Where was that squad that won 30 games in the Southland Conference and was one of the popular picks for a 12-5 upset? And what exactly happened to Kansas, injuries and depth issues notwithstanding, to justify allowing a blinding 32-4 second-half tsunami by Gonzaga – itself not exactly a deep team?
  The easiest answer is to say this is what Gonzaga does. No matter how dismal, no matter how down the outlook earlier in the season, it somehow redefines itself at the propitious time.
  I saw Gonzaga lose to Washington Dec. 9, and for GU fans, it was ghastly. The guard play devolved to atrocious in the late stages, when the Zags coughed up an 11-point lead and lost to the Huskies. Maybe worse than the bungled ball-handling and missed shots, they didn’t seem to be enjoying playing with each other, a hallmark of GU teams.
  Somehow, the Zags kept chopping wood, people like Ryan Nembhard and Graham Ike began to get it, and Saturday, after a second straight tournament victory that could have been by 30, Gonzaga had tied Duke (1998-2006) for the second-longest streak of Sweet 16 teams in history.
  If this isn't the most surprising of the Sweet 16s, it's at least 1B. Similarly, the 2015-16 Zags mucked aimlessly through much of the season. Then they caught fire, won the WCC tournament and blistered both Seton Hall and Utah to get to the round of 16. All that happened, ironically, as HBO cameras tracked them relentlessly for a reality-TV series called "Gonzaga: The March to Madness." Athletic director Mike Roth, fretting over the possibility of television chronicling the program finally coming back to earth after 17 straight NCAA-tournament appearances, likened the prospect to a "freakin' Greek tragedy."
  As it turned out, not to worry.
  Two points of perspective on Sweet 16 record history: UCLA’s glory-days teams obviously were dominant, but the NCAA doesn’t count them because the Bruins would routinely get a bye to the round of 16 in years when tournament participation numbered in the mid-20s.
  Second, North Carolina (1981-93) holds the record at 13, but it’s a bit less daunting than it sounds because the first four of those were 48-team tournaments and Carolina would get a bye, requiring a single win to crash the Sweet 16.
  It’s a ridiculously competitive sport. One night, you need to beat a team that massages the ball, the next you’re facing speedball on a short prep that begins at midnight after a late first-round win.
  Yeah, Gonzaga has benefited from a handful of 16-1 games, as did Carolina and Duke. But it’s also had to be pitch-perfect to get to that second weekend. It had to reduce Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead from Big East tournament MVP to a 4-for-24 shooter in a 16-point win as an 11 seed in 2016. Then it went out and beat Utah by 23.
  It had to have Zach Norvell’s three to break a tie in 2018 in the last 21 seconds against North Carolina-Greensboro, avoiding one of those first-round upsets that are everywhere, in what would have been the Zags’ most dire opener ever in the tournament.
  It needed all of Drew Timme’s wiles to overcome a 12-point second-half deficit against Memphis in  Portland two years ago, and it took all hands on deck to oust TCU last year, 84-81.
  All that happened during a stretch when, in the first two rounds, Arizona lost to Princeton and Purdue lost to Fairleigh-Dickinson and Virginia lost to Maryland-Baltimore County and Kentucky lost to St. Peter’s and Texas lost to Abilene Christian.
  Right here is where some mouth-breathing Cream-o-Wheat-brain says, “Uh, how many natties they won?”
  That would be none. But college hoops has its own class structure, one that’s far more varied and nuanced than, say, any of the pro sports. It’s like an extension ladder with 16 rungs, one that accommodates bluebloods like Duke, North Carolina and Kansas as well as an indigent like IUPUI; faded-glory places like DePaul, Syracuse and Georgetown; football schools that have had spasms of success (Michigan, Miami) and those that can’t get out of their own way (Penn State, Nebraska); mid-majors that have had bursts into the limelight (Princeton, Davidson, George Mason, Wichita State); and a whole array of other sub-species.
  It’s an awfully diverse fraternity, and the Zags have earned a place on the next-to-top rung, a national title away from the summit.
  I’d imagine their fans can universally appreciate that, but then again, after sitting in at the Spokane subregional over the weekend, I may be giving some of them too much credit.
  When Saint Mary’s, the Zags’ longtime bete noire, ran onto the floor for its first-round game with Grand Canyon, it was booed – not lightly, loudly. That came, assuredly, from some of the Gonzaga fans in the audience. Not all of them, but some.
  I thought it was bush.
  Saint Mary’s won the WCC regular-season title and followed up with the conference-tournament championship. It was the Gaels’ year. For their trouble, they got assigned to the Spokane subregional, to deal with the challenges of a road game.
  I’ll stipulate first that those are expensive tickets, and fans absolutely have the right to cheer or boo as they like. Second, the sound of boos is often a vague impression; if 100 people in a baseball stadium of 45,000 people boo, the storyline tends to become, “Bryce Harper was booed … “
  The Saint Mary’s reception was certainly robust. My companion, unsolicited, called it “hostile.”
  Of course, it was only a segment of Gonzaga fans. It’s probably not worth pointing out to them that any advancement by Saint Mary’s in the tournament stands to benefit Gonzaga financially via conference payouts. Moreover, what would there be for the Zags in the WCC without the Gaels? It’s easily the best rivalry in West Coast basketball, one that makes both schools better.
  There’s a time to lay down your guns and appreciate the other guy. In this case, it struck me as an unseemly sequel to the trash-throwing incident early in February when Gonzaga hosted the Gaels – petty, provincial and not a good look.
  Meanwhile, those folks have plenty to cheer from their favorite team. For comparative purposes, the next-best ongoing streak of Sweet 16s is Houston’s five. Funny, but for virtually a decade now, Gonzaga has been doing what it couldn’t from 2010 to 2014, when it annually won an NCAA-tournament game but stumbled in the second round.
  The Sweet 16 was the Holy Grail then. Now it’s as routine as the electric bill.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsguru #zagup


The bubble: For the Zags, new, different and indeterminate

Behold Gonzaga, forever breaking glass ceilings, always doing something outside the norm.
This season, that means lurking about the ledge of the NCAA-tournament cut, which is quite a change around the McCarthey Athletic Center. It’s been fully eight years since the Zags lived on the bubble, and of course, they haven’t failed to make an NCAA field since 1998, or shortly after somebody decided it would be a good idea to cut out the bottom of Naismith’s peach basket.
They’ve been there 24 consecutive times. Actually, they’ve made it 25, because they had just won the WCC’s at-large bid in 2020 before Covid-19 shut down the tournament before it could start.
It’s a bit jarring, then, to hear of the Zags on the bubble. The tournament would get along fine without them, of course, but initially, at least, it’d be like Christmas without a tree. They’ve been to eight straight Sweet 16s and since that bubble-surviving season of 2016, they’ve won more games in the tournament (24) than anybody.
Entering a pregnant final weekend of the regular season in the Bay Area, we can safely say this: They’ve been playing better. Nolan Hickman is shooting better, Ryan Nembhard is more comfortable, Graham Ike has been adept at staying on the floor, and Dusty Stromer looks more like the player he promised back in November.
But these Zags make for a tough read, and if they don’t win the WCC tournament, I suspect the NCAA basketball committee is going to have some long and pointed discussions about their qualifications.
Seemingly, for every argument favoring Gonzaga’s entry, there’s a counter. The Zags are No. 21 in the NET rankings, higher than any non-qualifier has ever been. Yeah, but they have one Quad 1 win.
Undefeated in Quads 3 and 4, they don’t have ugly blemishes. But they don’t have much oomph in Quad 2, either, with just two wins.
They have good metrics, almost uniformly – besides 21 in the NET, 21 in KenPom, 22 by Bart Torvik, 19 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. But in the KPI computer rankings, they’re No. 67.
And yeah, they’re playing better. But that matters to them, not the basketball committee. Years ago, there was a bump for late-season success, but not anymore.
This might be the most enigmatic of Zag resumes in the Mark Few era. They have losses to two of the top title contenders, Purdue and Connecticut, and another to an incipient high seed in San Diego State. There’s not a lot below it, once you get past the breakthrough win at Kentucky, thanks largely to the fact UCLA and USC went belly-up in tandem this year.
Therein, however, is a factor that may help Gonzaga – scheduling intent. Anyone assembling a schedule that includes UCLA and USC in addition to the other heavies isn’t ducking tough games. The committee will appreciate that the Zags’ intentions were good. We’re in an age when it’s next-to-impossible to project rosters accurately.
We shouldn’t obsess over the Quad numbers, either. The committee will drill down farther, and recognize, for instance, that Gonzaga beat Syracuse by 19 points, and the Orange was 18-10 and 9-8 in the ACC entering a Tuesday night-game with Virginia Tech.
And what, you ask, about the eyeball test? Does it matter? Is it even a thing? I suspect that more than the usual committee eyes were focused on the Gonzaga-Kentucky game because of GU’s precarious status. That can’t have hurt.
Is it a factor that Gonzaga has aced the opening weekend in eight straight tournaments? Minimally, if at all. Remember, to include the Zags means somebody else that might be deserving gets dinged. Every year is a clean slate. Perhaps there’s the smallest smidge of persuasiveness, though, in a committeeman knowing the Zags won’t embarrass him. They haven’t had a first-round loss since 2008, to Stephen Curry.
The guess here is that any win over Saint Mary’s gets the Zags in, and, short of that, beating San Francisco at the Chase Center Thursday night would go a long way, although three losses to the Gaels would be hard for the committee to digest.
A story: A good friend and I often used to travel to cover football games, and in so doing would find ourselves, in the days before navigational apps, groping through unfamiliar roads to find our way somewhere. In those moments, he would always implore loudly to nobody in particular: “Put up a sign!”
The committee would appreciate that of the Zags: Play your way into this thing, or show us definitively that, after a glorious quarter-century, you’re finally incapable of it.
By all means, Gonzaga, put up a sign.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsguru #zagup


It's all on the table for the Zags, not necessarily in a good way

  In the runup to the Connecticut-Gonzaga hoops matchup last week at Climate Pledge Arena, the cheap-seat price on StubHub dropped into the 20s.
  Too much Husky-centric euphoria, maybe, over their undefeated football season. Too much focus on the sputtering Seahawks. Too much angst spent on a Mariner franchise forever crying poor.
  And, lets face it, too little Zags.
  This feels like new and uneasy territory for Gonzaga, after another disquieting loss, the 76-63 defeat Friday night to the defending national champions. Actually, the Zags have been here before, and it’s not a comfortable place to be. More on that later.
  They stand 8-3, hardly cause for panic, except that they’ve revealed themselves to be without star power, without depth in the backcourt, without reliable perimeter shooting or fluid offense, and very possibly, without a clear path to the sort of March stage they’ve mounted for going on a decade.
  Since 2016-17, the year Nigel Williams-Goss became eligible, Gonzaga has entered the NCAA tournament as no worse than a No. 4 seed, and four times a No. 1, credentials that reflected Final Four and even national-title potential.
  This team is not that. It’s all out there for Gonzaga, and not in a good way. The run of eight straight Sweet 16s is in deep trouble. The astonishing streak of 14 opening-round victories in the NCAA tournament is fragile, because, no, it’s hardly a lock that the Zags make the thing at all, something they’ve done 25 straight times.
  It may not be an overstatement to say that to a large extent, the Zags’ fate rests in the hands of Los Angeles. Their two best victories are over UCLA and USC, and weekend losses by both dropped them to 5-4 and 5-5, respectively.
  The season looks a lot like 2015-16, when the Zags fumbled multiple opportunities at key victories and entered March with a single quality win, over No. 9-seeded UConn. That team came together down the stretch, burst to the WCC tournament championship (after losing twice to Saint Mary’s), crashed the Sweet 16 and was a bad finish against Syracuse away from the Elite Eight.
  Relative weakness of the WCC is probably more of a hindrance than a boon. Yes, that makes the automatic berth ostensibly easier, but it also dilutes the value of beating those teams and buffing the at-large resume. Saint Mary’s is a mere 6-5, and if the WCC doesn’t afford at least a couple of opportunities to impress, Gonzaga is left with San Diego State Dec. 29 and Kentucky Feb. 10.
  The season-ending injury to Eastern Washington transfer Steele Venters has been a killer, stripping the Zags of likely their best outside shooter and causing everybody else to adjust to try to caulk that deficit. Meanwhile, Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman are forced to play too many minutes in the backcourt because there’s nobody else available, and neither has been a revelation.
  Progress by Seoul import Jun Seok Yeo would enhance the flexibility in the backcourt. In the meantime, it’s particularly painful for Zag partisans to see two GU ex-pats, Hunter Sallis and Dominick Harris, prospering elsewhere, leading Wake Forest and Loyola Marymount, respectively, in scoring.
  At Washington eight days ago, after the Zags took an 11-point lead with about 14 minutes left, they finished by going 3 for 18 with six turnovers. The offense was a total mess, and if you want to attribute that to a Husky team that previously couldn’t stop anybody, go ahead.
  The other night on the Field of 68 podcast, Rob Dauster and Jeff Goodman ruminated on the state of Gonzaga, and the tenor was sobering. Goodman noted, rightly, that there’s nobody on the roster that strikes fear in an opponent, nobody on the scouting report that must be taken away. He wondered aloud whether this season finally reflects the impact Tommy Lloyd used to have on the roster.
  Mark Few, a steady-as-she-goes kind of guy, would no doubt preach caution. There are almost three months of opportunities, a lot of room for growth, and no epitaphs advisable in mid-December. And because Gonzaga punched so far above its weight in recent years – four No. 1 seeds in six tournaments! – the shortfall is so pronounced.
  Yet here we are. When the season began, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that this would finally be the year the Zags’ output dovetailed with Spokane’s hosting of an NCAA-tournament subregional. But right on schedule – for its fans, maddeningly uncanny schedule -- this is the cue for Gonzaga to have an off-year.
  Spokane Arena hosted in 2003, and 07-10-14-16. Gonzaga (31-2) was headed there, finally, in 2020, and the pandemic blew up everything. Twelve times the Zags have had a No. 4 seed or better – pretty much the standard to get a “preferred” site – and none have matched up with Arena hosting years.
  That streak, shake your head, seems almost certain to continue. It’s the others that don’t look like a slam-dunk.  
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsguru #zagup


Suddenly, Zags have a Saint Mary's problem

For a good long time now, Saint Mary’s has been Gonzaga’s bete noire in the West Coast Conference, the program that occasionally made a mess of a perfectly good party.

  Never mind that the Zags have won about three games in every four played in the long-running subplot of Mark Few versus Randy Bennett. When you’ve ridden herd in a conference for as long as Gonzaga, the losses have a way of sticking with fans almost more than the wins.

  As recently as 10 months ago, the Gaels did it to the Zags, as freshman guard Aidan Mahaney erased a forgettable night with a spectacular few minutes down the stretch in an overtime victory.

  Twice in recent years, Saint Mary’s has short-sheeted No. 1-ranked Gonzaga clubs: It happened to the Chet Holmgren team two years ago, 67-57, late in the season in Moraga; and even more shocking, in the WCC tournament final of 2019, 60-47. That night, Corey Kispert, Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins combined to shoot 1 for 11 on threes, and making the occasion more incredible was that Gonzaga had beaten the same team 31 days earlier by the score of 94-46.

  Now Saint Mary’s has found a different way to torment its oppressors.

  Suddenly, the Gaels have lost their way.

  They entered a Tuesday-night game with Cleveland State having lost five of six games. The 3-5 record represents the most losses this early in the past 20 years of the program.

  Hah, the Gonzaga partisan might say. This is a good thing.

  Well, not so much, because in their annoying-little-brother role to Gonzaga, the Gaels have been a useful foil. They’ve been somebody good, a reminder to keep the Zags engaged through the dog days of the season and a worthwhile pelt when the NCAA basketball committee gets to assigning seeds and sites in March.

  What’s to keep Gonzaga interested once the calendar rolls to 2024? Brigham Young has split for the Big 12, and wouldn’t you know it, BYU is ranked 14th by AP this week. If Saint Mary’s is going to continue mucking through its season, there isn’t an opponent on GU’s league schedule that would burnish a resume.

  The Zags have acquitted themselves well, losing only to Purdue and bagging victories over probable NCAA-tournament timber UCLA and USC. Which means, if Saint Mary’s doesn’t experience a revival, there would be only three remaining NCAA threats on Gonzaga's schedule -- Connecticut Dec. 16, San Diego State Dec. 29, and at Kentucky Feb. 10.

  Bennett’s Gaels have scheduled harder this year. But they’ve also fallen harder, losing to San Diego State by 25 and Xavier by 17.

  “They’ve scheduled like he never has before,” said Boise State coach Leon Rice, the former Zag assistant, whose team won 63-60 the other night over Saint Mary’s. “When you have a hard one, one after another after another, it can stack up on you.”

  Saint Mary’s has been an offensive mess, shooting just .428 (260th in Division I), .299 from the three-point line and .629 on free throws. At least the improved schedule has minimized the computer damage; the Gaels are a respectable 65th in the KenPom rankings, implying that it’s not that farfetched to rescue a move toward the NCAA tournament.

  “They’re gonna be good, it’s not like they’ve disappeared,” Rice insists. “You watch, they’re gonna win nine of their next 10.”

   If they do, Zag fans will have to love it, even while they’re hating it.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagsguru #zagsmbb #zagup


Gonzaga's bracket busted too, and cue the analysis

  Back in 2010, before Final Fours, before Sweet 16s on demand, before NIL, Gonzaga turned in one of its most forgettable basketball performances of all time, losing 76-41 to Duke at Madison Square Garden. When I wrote Glory Hounds, Zags coach Mark Few and his assistant, Ray Giacoletti, recalled a glum, introspective walk afterward through the streets of New York in a snowstorm amid the incongruity of Christmas lights, trying to get a handle on their team.

  For hours.

  Few and his coaching cronies have a name for it: Season-on-the-brink moments.

  “You have ‘em every year,” Few told me.

  Well, since the 2022-23 season is now over, there are no season-on-the-brink moments. But Connecticut’s evisceration of the Zags the other night in the Elite Eight probably would have qualified (and what better place to have lost yourself in thought, or blackjack, than the Las Vegas Strip?).

  Gonzaga finished a season that was by turns alarming and then satisfying with a performance against UConn that was perplexing. Not that the Huskies won, or even that they won convincingly, but that the Zags, once the wheels started to come off, never mustered so much as a whimper of response. They were like a rotting second floor, which looks OK one minute and then collapses into a pile the next.

  After all, this was an even game 14 minutes in, nothing to indicate UConn would later lead by 33. But the Zags then couldn’t make a shot – a lot of them in the lane. Offense affected defense and defense affected offense.

  They didn’t help themselves by playing unintelligently. They botched the last possession of the half, pushing the UConn lead to seven, and Drew Timme’s third and fourth fouls, each early in the second half, simply weren’t smart, a contrast to his brilliant career.

  So yes, the margin, 28 points, was a shock. Yet – easy to say now – perhaps there was a bit of inevitability to the defeat, even as there was talk of Gonzaga going all the way in a tournament memorable for its anarchy.

  This was never one of GU’s best teams, less than imposing on the perimeter and without the defensive chops necessary. The Zags were an ominous No. 73 in KenPom’s defense numbers, and if you need perspective, the No. 72 team was Washington State, a .500 outfit.

  An Elite Eight push was thus, if not overachievement, at least a mark of fulfillment.

  Not that you’d know it by some of the reaction. For some reason, maybe because that national-title banner remains unhung, the Zags seem to rally critics to pitchforks and torches faster than you can get a beer from the fridge during a timeout.

  Of course, there was an old standby, that the West Coast Conference doesn’t prepare Gonzaga for the NCAA tournament. So, I Twittered, that must mean the WCC hurt them when they lost in the eight straight Sweet 16 years, but not in the nation-best 25 victories they ran up in that stretch.

  Somebody said they don’t see teams in the WCC that can extend and take away the three-pointer like they encounter in the NCAAs. Hmm, that sounds a lot like the Alabama team the Zags solved in Birmingham just before Christmas.

  One media type alleged the Zags have had a “manageable to downright easy road” getting to the second weekend over the years. True that the UCLA injuries aided Gonzaga’s path this March. But in every one of those other Sweet 16 advances, the Zags faced a single-digit seed in the second round. We should want them to play the Milwaukee Bucks?

   Ask Kansas how easy it is to get to the round of 32; three of the past four tournaments, it hasn’t. Ask Virginia, which has won games in only one of the past five tournaments. Ask Baylor, which has pushed into the Sweet 16 once in five tournaments.

  The difference, obviously, is that those schools have recently won NCAA titles. USA Today, noting that vacancy in the Gonzaga trophy case, wrote, “So what is preventing this program from finally cashing in and winning a championship? If not already, at some point Few will be defined by his inability to get Gonzaga over this last hurdle.”

  Pretty bold stuff, as opposed to the LA Times’ reference to Gonzaga as an “NCAA tournament Goliath” and a description of GU as a “blueblood” on a Westwood One national radio broadcast. The Zags don’t have a national championship, but they’re runaway leaders in inspiring polar reaction.

  During its tournament run, for what it’s worth, Gonzaga (44-25) nosed into a tie for 19th nationally in total victories in the event, with Maryland (44-28) and Purdue (44-33). The Zags spotted the field a pretty good head start.

  What’s next? Spokane Arena hosts first- and second-round games in 2024, and even without Timme, it would seem a proper goal to try to wrangle the kind of protected seed – No. 4 or better – to stay home. Gonzaga’s best teams have never quite lined up with that facility’s years of hosting, notably in the pandemic-scrubbed tournament of 2020.

  Never has the college game been so infused with the transfer/NIL chaos, but you’d guess established programs with a solid culture – raise your hand, Gonzaga -- would be the ones holding the trump cards. This would be a good time for that culture to assert itself, to kill off those season-on-the-brink moments.
#theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagmbb #zagsguru #zagup


Playing deep into March: It's become a Zag thing

  Not so long ago, there was a time when Gonzaga couldn’t seem to make March Madness’ Sweet 16.

  Now the thing can’t seem to go on without the Zags.

  When they gnarled their way past TCU Sunday night, they crashed their eighth straight Sweet 16. That’s third all-time in college hoops, and to underscore the then-and-now of that streak, Gonzaga’s starting guards when it began were Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., and they're both 30 now. When the streak started, we were still five years removed from a worldwide pandemic.

  Longtime Gonzaga watchers will recall some of the growing pains after the initial burst onto the college hoops scene – the ugly second-round 2004 meltdown at KeyArena against Nevada, the squandering of a double-digit lead to lose in the second round to Bob Knight’s Texas Tech team a year later.

  In 2007 and 2008 came the first-round ousters (how quaint) to Indiana and Steph Curry’s Davidson, followed by a Sweet 16 breakthrough in Portland in 2009 thanks to Demetri Goodson.

  But then came the Great Plateau, five years straight, when Gonzaga won first-round games but couldn’t convert 48 hours later to get to the Sweet 16. Looking back, GU turned in some terrific first-round performances – Florida State (2010), St. John’s (2011), West Virginia (2012) and Oklahoma State (2014) but their advances stopped right there.

  Suddenly, getting to the second weekend is like second nature, and it begs for perspective.

  Yes, Gonzaga will always be something less than complete until it hangs that big banner. But some of the numbers tell you what a heater the Zags have been on since 2015.

  It began at KeyArena, and since then, Gonzaga is 24-7 in NCAA-tournament games, tops in the nation.

  Some other tournament victory totals in that span:

  North Carolina 21.

  Villanova 21.

  Duke 20.

  Kansas 20.

  Kentucky 14.

  Michigan State 13.

  UCLA 13.

  Virginia 11.

  Arizona 7.

  Thing is, those are cold, hard numbers, apart from caterwauling about the WCC being a second-class league, discussions about tournament preparedness, etc., etc. You win games or you lose games, and there’s not a lot of room left for debate.

  How do we wrap our heads around those 24 wins? Well, the NCAA tournament began outpacing the NIT as the sport’s event of relevance about 1950 or so. Until then, the NIT was held in equal or greater esteem (apologies to Oregon’s Tall Firs, who won the first NCAA tournament in 1939). So in the near 75 years since then, the last eight tournaments represent between 10 and 11 percent of that stretch, and Gonzaga is the nation’s winningest post-season program for that period.

  Or this: The sport really blossomed in the post-John Wooden era, when TV became enthralled and Bird and Magic dueled in Salt Lake City in the championship game of 1979. If we establish that period at, say, the past 45 years, Gonzaga claims the last 18 percent of that era of booming interest in the game as the nation’s most irrepressible NCAA-tournament program. It’s all a little mind-numbing.

  Yes, the absence of that elusive banner is still a big thing.

  But no, it’s not the only thing
#marchmadness #theslipperstillfits #unitedwezag #wcchoops #wccsports #zaghoops #zagsguru #zagsmbb #zagup


Zags-Saint Mary's: You really can throw out the record book


So away we go: Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, the dreadnoughts of the West Coast Conference, renewing Saturday night a deepening rivalry.

This time, it’s with a twist.

Each game last year generated its own distinct flavor. At Saint Mary’s in the latter part of January, with the Zags hunting an elusive quality win, they led by 10 points in the final five minutes. And they coughed it up, losing 70-67.

Surely, 30 days later, Gonzaga would atone on Senior Night. But no. Saint Mary’s led virtually the entire game and upended the Zags, 63-58. It was about as dark a place as Gonzaga has visited in recent years, seemingly a sign that 17 straight seasons of NCAA tournaments was drawing to a close.

“I just remember, we had a really bad week of practice,” said GU assistant Tommy Lloyd, referring to the run-up to the second game. “We had a handful of guys get pinkeye, so they couldn’t practice. We didn’t let that be known. We were a mess. We played like it.”

But in the WCC tournament finale, Gonzaga got it done, 85-75, shooting 61.7 percent and led by Eric McClellan’s 20 points.

All those were memorable in their own way, but for this latest Gaels-GU joust, a short memory might be best.

Why? Because five of the top six Gonzaga scorers didn’t play against Saint Mary’s last year. Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams III were redshirting; Przemek Karnowski was wincing through his first steps after back surgery; Jordan Mathews was at Cal; and Zach Collins was still in high school. Throw in Killian Tillie, to balance returnee Silas Melson, and only two of Gonzaga’s primary eight-man rotation were on the floor for GU in 2015-16.

Undoubtedly, at some point in the locker room, or in a shootaround, or in a team meeting at the hotel, somebody will tell the Gaels: You’ve done this before. You’ve won on Gonzaga’s home floor. You’ve beaten these guys.

But have they, really?

That’s why this is such a milepost game for Gonzaga, now a winner of its first 16 games. The eyeball test tells you this Zags outfit is much better than last year’s, but this is the best available yardstick to validate it. Because Saint Mary’s has its starting five back, much unlike Gonzaga.

Saint Mary’s (15=1) brings some arresting numbers: Perhaps the most noticeable is that entering its blowout victory over Portland Thursday night, the Gaels were No. 350 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo rankings (Virginia was No. 351). That helps them place No. 3 nationally in scoring defense (58.1).

They take their time. They get good shots. They put defenses in compromising positions.

“They’re extremely sound in everything they do,” said Lloyd. “They do a really good job of reading the game, with a combination of spacing the floor, ball-handlers, decision-makers. They put you in situations where you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do.”

Jock Landale, a 6-11 Aussie, has become the centerpiece of the Gaels, averaging 18.4 points and 9.7 rebounds. His battle with Karnowski (and no doubt, Collins) will be intriguing.

Entering Portland, SMC was shooting .501 from the field, 12th nationally. Its .756 free throw percentage was 30th in the country. Its efficiency is underscored by a sharp 1.57 team assist-turnover ratio, 11th in the nation. And Saint Mary’s rebound margin (9.9) is No. 7.

The Gaels are capable of befuddling the Zags, who haven’t yet played as cohesive a team as Saint Mary’s.

But if Gonzaga hasn’t seen anything like the Gaels, Saint Mary’s hasn’t seen anything like the Zags, either. At least not these.

#Zagsguru #Zagsmbb #Zagup


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